The late-afternoon sun stamps shadows of thatched-roof cottages across Kilmore Quay’s main road, which slopes a half-mile down to the sea on the southeastern tip of Ireland. With a population just under 400, this fishing village’s residents number fewer than 10 percent of the gray seal population that inhabits the surrounding Irish Sea. Down by the harbor, the tawny-colored Town Mutt is busy scamming ice cream and other treats from the tourists.
Ce na Cille Mhoire, the town’s Gaelic name, means “Church on the Big Hill.” St. Peter’s Catholic Church, its thick steeple cutting a distinctive silhouette on the horizon, has long served as a landmark for sailors making their way along the coast of County Wexford. It’s our destination as well. We’ve travelled from Minnesota for my brother’s wedding to a woman from the village.
Across the narrow road from the church is Kehoe’s Pub, another landmark for sailors and tourists alike. The pub, which has been a family-owned business for generations, is more than just the local watering hole; it is also the village’s self-proclaimed “Maritime Heritage Center.”
The Americans, more than a dozen strong, invade the pub looking for the wedding party and friends who have arrived a couple of days early. A bulky German deep-sea diving suit stands stiffly in one corner, just one of several artifacts recovered from local shipwrecks that compose the heritage center. There’s also a brass binnacle protecting a ship’s compass and a saloon porthole from an ocean liner that had been torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1917. Behind the bar is the bell from The Lady Patricia, and in front of the bar is Sé, a man in his early thirties from Limerick. Like us, he’s in town for the wedding.
Although Sé is not one of Kehoe’s official attractions, it soon becomes apparent that he will be this evening’s informal entertainment. Slender, with thick dark hair and hazel eyes, he is ready with song with little encouragement, easily segueing from “Bicycle Built for Two” into a number of traditional Irish songs. His voice is as smooth and warming as a pint of lager. As the evening progresses, his repertoire becomes bawdier, his voice thicker. Eventually, though, Sé runs out of song, and beer, since the bar is now closed. The pub crowd slowly disperses into the cool April night, vanishing like whispers into the growing fog.
* * * * *
Somewhere, in the darkness, the bride is fretting. Moments before, a mosaic of color and light and sound had danced through the room, and then, with an abrupt pffft, darkness descended. The murmur of wedding guests, stranded at tables or on the dance floor, is amplified without the distraction of light. The once-rocking band is now mute except for a feeble-sounding clang from the cymbal whenever somebody bumps its stand.
By the time the back-up generator kicks in a couple of minutes later, the bride has disappeared and the members of the band are lounging at the bar. Plates loaded with cold roast beef sandwiches arrive at each table to distract the guests. The emergency lights provide an institutional cheeriness along the perimeter of the banquet room. Silhouetted in the doorway, the groom and the hotel manager are discussing the situation.
Half of Wexford County is blacked out, the manager explains. During a break in the thunderstorms that rumbled through the area that evening, some waterfowl had taken flight, crashing into the power lines serving several villages. All of Kilmore Quay was without power, indefinitely.
As the wedding guests refill their glasses and plates, amiably adapting to the change of events, the lead singer seems suddenly to remember that people once used musical instruments unconstrained by the whims of technology and nature. He pulls out a wooden recorder and begins playing melodies born of the Irish soil centuries before. For the next several minutes, all we hear in the room are the wistful sounds of the recorder accompanied by the ancient beat of the bodhran the drummer is now playing. Sé (of course) begins singing, his tenor slowly picking up volume as he sings. Others join him in first this song, then the several that follow.
The bride returns. She has changed from her sleeveless white gown into a filmy pale yellow dress painted with lavender flowers. She relaxes when she sees the crowd engaged in the music. Some have begun to dance, following the primal beat of the bodhran. The groom joins her and they, too, dance, the guests cheering them on.
Around midnight the lights flicker on, then off, then on again. The band takes a break before resuming its electronic entertainment and the floor is again a whirl of color and light and artificial sound. I walk outside into the cool night, the village around me now darkened by choice, not chance. The sky is scattered with stars, occasionally obscured by a thin veil of clouds, remnants of the storm. Turning to the west, I see the comet Hale-Bopp, its distinctive 60-million-mile tail still visible as it nears the end of its 18-month tour through the Milky Way. It will be another 2,300 years before this comet will reappear in our solar system. I imagine on another such night, a group of friends old and new will again gather to celebrate the joining of two people, two traditions, and be transformed into one.
CHRISTINA JOYCE often seeks writing inspiration in other parts of the world, but finds her richest material comes from her home state of Minnesota. Her most recent essays were published in Talking Stick and the Saint Paul Almanac.